Saturday, December 3, 2011

CII Decade of Innovation Event: Innovation with Social Impact

CII organised a 2-day event titled “Decade of Innovation: Year 1” to take stock of where we stand at the end of year 1 in the Decade of Innovation.

I participated in a panel on “Innovations for Improving Quality of Social & Environmental Life.” The session chair, Professor Anil Gupta, focused on the importance of grassroots innovation and strengthening the innovation culture across the country. He gave several examples of youngsters across the country who have come up with exciting new ideas. He explained how Techpedia has evolved as a digital repository of students doing engineering projects across the country. He lauded the Gujarat Technological University for getting students to do meaningful projects as a part of their engineering curriculum. Anilji also raised some provocative questions on innovating in a poor country like India: Should we be willing to sacrifice some accuracy for affordability? Some desires to help the deserving? Some design for durability?

I was impressed by the efforts of Dr VK Gupta of CSIR, Traditional Knowledge Guru, who is the leader of efforts to bust foreign patents on our traditional knowledge. Basically, to prevent foreigners (and even Indians!) from patenting our traditional knowledge, the government has done an extensive documentation of our traditional knowledge systems and, more importantly, formally linked up with patent offices worldwide. It’s good to see their success in inking formal access agreements with international patent offices – we often don’t take things to closure through the last mile… for details of the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, check out

Dr. Radhakrishnan Kodakkal of Philips spoke about PHILIPS R&D CENTRE & PRODUCTION FACILITY AT PUNE. The unit is called the Healthcare Development and Manufacturing Centre(DMC) which consists of an R&D Centre and a Manufacturing centre in MIDC Chakan which is being built. There are also a few small factories that came from the 2008 acquisition of Alpha Xray technologies and Meditronics Healthcare). Healthcare DMC India is organized like a Business Unit with P&L responsibilities with the scope for global value segment market for X-Ray imaging products (Analog Radiography, Digital Radiography, Surgery Imaging, Cardio Vascular systems etc). Currently Philips has around 6 product lines sold in Indian market and one globally. Looks like Philips has an integrated perspective of how to target the value segment in India – in this, it seems to be ahead of its main MNC rivals. The focus is on value and quality. Radhakrishnan gave an interesting example of how low cost doesn’t mean low quality – an individual can have a bath in a Jacuzzi or a shower enclosure or with a bucket and a mug. Whatever the technology, no one likes a cracked, dirty or leaky product. Quality means similar things to everyone….

Neelam Chibber is one of our most passionate social entrepreneurs. The retail chain that she founded, Mother Earth, works with 10,000 artisans in 8 states. Neelam’s effort has been to apply design thinking to bridge the silos that exist in the produce of artisans reaching the market and their getting an appropriate return for their efforts. India has the world’s largest creative industry workforce, but 2% of production! The government is not correctly structured to deal with the needs of the artisans – the Ministry of Textiles is the nodal ministry but it has to deal with a variety of handicrafts as well. Mother Earth’s important contribution has been to the design of the ecosystem for artisans. Artisans have 10% share in the brand holding company. A social investor and the IFC have investment in the supply chain company. A joint venture with the Future Group manages the retail end. The objective is to create an equitable model, and a social connect for the business. More power to Neelam and others like her for adapting capitalism to, as Porter and Kramer call it, “create shared value (see Harvard Business Review January-February 2011).”

Professor Ove Granstrand of Chalmers University, Sweden, explained how national innovation systems are being replaced by Global Innovation Systems, and talked about some of the implications of this phenomenon for the world.

In a presentation titled Breakthrough Innovation for Social Impact, I gave some examples of how companies across India are pursuing innovation for improvement of environment and the quality of life. Based on case studies such as the Tata Swach, Husk Power Systems, Biocon and Revolo, I drew some implications for what it takes to make such innovations work: problem identification is the first important step, as identifying the right problem motivates the team, provides a sense of purpose, and, of course, is related to what impact the innovation has. Affordability is a key driver of such innovation, and finding the right business model is key to the innovation’s effectiveness. I emphasized the importance of experimentation in two loops – from idea to proof of concept, and from proof of concept to market acceptance. Patience and perseverance are key to these innovations, as they take many years and several experiments to reach fruition. Visionaries who can make connections and forge partnerships play an important role in making these innovations successful.

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